A Simple Product Line the Secret to Apple’s Success?
26 Jan 2009

A Simple Product Line the Secret to Apple’s Success?

26 Jan 2009

In these tough economic times, one reads of disappointing earnings and layoffs almost every day. Certainly, consumer electronics companies are not unaffected, and major players like Microsoft and Sony are seeing sales plummet and are cutting staff. However, there is one among them that is doing exceptionally well given the market conditions–Apple.

Matt Burns over at CrunchGear wonders in a recent post whether the secret for Apple’s success isn’t its simple product line. Matt notes in his post that Apple’s product line consists of “[one] cellphone, four iPods, three notebooks, and three desktop computers.” It’s certainly a fair question, and similar claims have been made by various academics including Professor Barry Schwartz who authored a brilliant book, on the topic of too much choice, titled The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More. (You can watch Professor Schwartz’s talk based on his book on Google Video.)

Matt also draws some comparisons with other consumer electronics heavy-weights like Motorola, which “[has] 27 cell phones available….” At the same time Apple’s singular iPhone has sold 88% more units this year than last. He also points out that “Garmin makes 82 GPS units that can be mounted in a car or carried in your hand. 82!?! … If Apple made a GPS, there would be two models available – maybe only one.”

I can certainly relate to the overbearing amount of choices in GPS units. I’ve been in the market for a GPS unit, but I still haven’t bought one because I am unwilling to invest the time and effort to wade through the innumerable choices. The point is that, if a customer is somewhat motivated to buy something, but has to decipher an overbearing amount of choices, they will not do it because the perceived reward is not worth the effort. This translates to foregone sales. Matt notes that

Consumers hate choices. They say they love them, but have you ever stood in front of a wall of plasmas and LCDs with a random person? … They get overwhelmed by the amount of options, but Apple has made it easy by producing top-notch products that are easily available.

It is difficult to agree with the assertion that Apple’s success is based on a simple product line; Apple also makes great products in many people’s views. However, I can personally attest that one of the easiest shopping experiences I’ve had was buying my MacBook Pro. The choice was fast and easy, and although I did not get a fully personalized computer, I got one that was more than sufficient for my needs.

I think this observation begs a bigger question: Are we giving too much fanfare to personalization and choice? A recent Economist article, The Long Tail (January 5, 2009), points out that

[One] American telecoms company, offering a wide range of packages for different consumer groups, was reckoned to have 377m different possible combinations of its services, many of which, of course, were never requested.

Is the paradigm of more choice really the most effective product model?

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